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Kazakhstan: Living with Semipalatinsk’s Nuclear Fallout

Mendibay Umirkhanov (left), who grew up in a village called Sarapan in the 1960s, remembers being covered in felt as a rudimentary form of protection against nuclear explosions. The atomic tests turned swaths of Kazakhstan into a toxic wasteland and ravaged the health of locals, who still grapple with the consequences. (Photo: Joanna Lillis)

In the village of Znamenka in northeastern Kazakhstan, adults have vivid memories of nuclear explosions rocking the steppe.
 
“We saw mushroom clouds — big and terrifying ones,” recalled Galina Tornoshenko, 67, shaking her head at the traumatic memory and gesturing upward at the clear blue sky. “I was small at the time, but I remember it well.”
 
Tornoshenko was born in Soviet-ruled Kazakhstan in 1949, the year the Soviet Union shocked the world with its first atomic test. That blast was detonated at a new, top-secret nuclear testing ground near the city of Semipalatinsk, which was founded amid the start of the US-Soviet arms race. At the time, the Stalin-ruled Soviet Union was striving to catch up to US nuclear capabilities — and Semipalatinsk, the 18,000-square-kilometer nuclear test site that staged that first atomic explosion, was crucial to these ambitions.
 

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Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan: Living with Semipalatinsk’s Nuclear Fallout

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